A gradual separation from the world: commentary on a qualitative exploration of existential loneliness in old age
Aims and methods:
Loneliness is a prevalent and significant issue. It has been identified as a particularly important physical and mental health risk for older people. This article critically explores and discusses a recent study that sought to qualitatively explore the lived experiences of existential loneliness in a large sample of older people living in retirement community contexts.
The data pointed to complex, multilayered challenges, often brought about by ageing, that give rise to unique experiences of existential loneliness for many older people.
For clinical practitioners, understanding how older people experience existential loneliness is essential if we are to develop support mechanisms that compassionately and empathically respond to them.
Older people are often portrayed as a population particularly vulnerable to loneliness. Media representations of later life can depict loneliness as a distressing and inevitable part of ageing (Uotila et al, 2011; Reul et al, 2022). Loneliness in older people has been extensively investigated in academic literature (see Chawla et al (2021) for a review), exploring the diverse and complex array of experiences of separation and emptiness faced by many older people.
A variety of conceptual frameworks and measurement tools have been developed to examine the emotional, social, physical and spiritual experiences of loneliness in older people, as well as numerous potential interventions aimed at benefiting wellbeing, physical health and public health expenditure (DiTommaso and Spinner, 1997; Adams et al, 2004; De Jong-Gierveld et al, 2006; Sand and Strang, 2006; Hawkley and Cacioppo, 2010; Gale et al, 2018). However, this rich body of research can also lead to confusion rather than clarity, due to the lack of a unifying lens to better underline the multifaceted and often dynamic experiences of loneliness in old age (Bolmsjö et al, 2019).
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